Whenever anyone looks up from what Golden State has managed to accomplish long enough to address the Eastern Conference, the question that typically follows has remained the same for months.
If not the Cavs, then who?
Despite a drama-filled season featuring multiple LeBron James veiled tweets citing displeasure with his teammates, a poor record against the NBA’s other elite teams and the midseason firing of head coach David Blatt, Cleveland entered the final week of the regular season one win away from locking up the No. 1 seed in the East.
They’re also set to surpass the projected season win total set at 56.5 by the Westgate LV Superbook provided they don’t fumble this week’s contests.
Since homecourt means so much to a team like the Cavs, count on them ensuring that the path to the Eastern Conference title goes through Quicken Loans Arena. Cleveland ranks just behind the Spurs and Warriors with a 32-7 home record entering the week’s games against Atlanta and Detroit, so it’s obviously where the team is most comfortable.
Ensuring that a Game 1 and Game 7 will be played at the Q is a top priority, so presuming they hold off the No. 2-seeded Raptors, you can see why they’re a heavy favorite.
Sportsbook.ag lists them at -300 (1-to-3) to get out of the East and play for the championship for the second consecutive year. Which brings us back to who, if anyone, is best equipped to knock them off.
Toronto has garnered enough respect to have earned the nod from oddsmakers, coming in at +700 (7-to-1) despite having never reached a conference finals in franchise history. In fact, the Raptors have only won a single series since coming on the NBA scene in 1996, way back in 2001. The Raps are 1-7 in playoff series, winning just 14 of 42 games.
This particular group, led by All-Star guards Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan, has failed to get out of the first round in each of the last two seasons despite being the higher-seeded team. Despite this, there’s plenty to like, as Lowry and DeRozan have become more efficient, center Jonas Valanciunas has improved and vets like Cory Joseph and Luis Scola have helped breed a winning climate.
The Raps defend like few others in the conference, but to me, there not the clear-cut choice for the second option behind the Cavs.
For my money, Atlanta and Miami, still competing for the Southeast Division title entering the final week, have to be considered the most significant threats to Cleveland’s throne. The Heat rank third at many shops, priced at +1200, and they’re certainly at the top of my list, currently above the Raptors barring any injuries going forward.
While it doesn’t appear they’re going to get All-Star Chris Bosh back, the acquisition of Joe Johnson has transformed Miami into one of the most efficient offensive teams in the NBA since he arrived. His ability to spread the floor has provided space for Dwyane Wade and Goran Dragic to create for others, not to mention giving Hassan Whiteside more room to work inside. The league’s leading shot blocker has continued to progress as an offensive threat and is the top x-factor in the Eastern Conference postseason picture.
Although rookies aren’t typically reliable, defense-oriented stud athletes Justise Winslow and Josh Richardson have helped change games with their athleticism and ability to lock up on the perimeter. They’ve performed like veterans, which makes Miami versatile and dangerous.
Beyond that, the presence of Wade, Luol Deng, Amar’e Stoudemire and Udonis Haslem, guys who have been through the playoff wars, affords Miami a toughness that few teams have. If there’s anyone that can get in the head of LeBron’s younger mates, it’s his former squad. You can bet he knows this and would rather not see Miami on his playoff odyssey.
The Hawks are at +1500 but have recovered from losing DeMarre Carroll in the offseason, plugging in Kent Bazemore and Thabo Sefolosha in that spot. Since Paul Millsap, Jeff Teague, Al Horford, Kyle Korver, Dennis Schroder and Mike Scott all played significant roles in last year’s run to the Eastern Conference finals, you have to consider Atlanta a significant threat to get back there.
It remains to be seen where any of the teams that entered the week situated 3-through-6 will wind up, but the Hawks proved last year that Philips Arena can be a tough place to play when their typically apathetic fan base shows up. Atlanta will support a winner. It’s not out of the question that they’ll get one to back.
The Boston Celtics and Charlotte Hornets join the Heat and Hawks in that 3-through-6 group and have also been installed at +1500, but neither packs much significant playoff experience. Both teams are superbly coached by Brad Stevens and Steve Clifford, and they’re led by guards who can get hot enough to sway a series in Isaiah Thomas and Kemba Walker. They’ll be dangerous, but unlikely to dethrone Cleveland.
Tony Mejia is a national sports writer and senior contributor at VegasInsider.com. He’s also the owner and operator of Antony Dinero, the most successful documented volume handicapper in the industry. View his analysis daily at VegasInsider.com. Email: [email protected].